[10/16/2003] - "Quebecite"
Before her death in 1995, Lillian Liu, the mother of Ottawa-born jazz pianist D.D. Jackson, dictated details of her life into a tape recorder. Jackson's father, Richard Jackson, transcribed the tapes to print, adding details of his own life.
Those pages might have been condemned to a trunk of family heirlooms were it not for a chance phone conversation between D.D. Jackson and Ajay Heble, artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival.
"I had called him just to do a gig," recalls Jackson, on the phone from his home in Brooklyn. "He had this grand notion of a jazz opera, and suggested I collaborate with George Elliott Clarke."
With commission in hand, Jackson used his father's transcripts to shape an opera about a Canadian interracial couple, based on the real experiences of his parents. Jackson's mother, of Chinese origin, met his father, an African-American, while both attended college in the U.S. Liu's parents were so against the relationship that the two fled to Ottawa, where Jackson was born.
Clarke, a libretto writer, suggested the opera include a second couple dealing with interracial issues and together they composed Quebecite, which will be performed Friday and Saturday at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre.
The opera centres on the relationships of two couples, Malcolm (jazz and gospel singer Dean Bowman) and Collette (Korean-Canadian vocalist Yoon Choi) -- who are based on Jackson's parents -- and Ovide (JackSoul vocalist Haydain Neale), a Haitian-Canadian, and Laxmi (Toronto singer Kiran Ahluwahlia), an Indo-Canadian.
"It was a learning experience for both George and myself," says Jackson, 36. "It was my first experience writing such a large-scale work involving words, and working with such an incredibly lush, beautiful poetic expression, which is what George's work is about.
"For George, he worked with someone who demanded he do things in a slightly different way than he's done in the past. For one thing, he was forced to rhyme."
Most of all, both Jackson and Clarke wrote for the specific voices of the four singers who would perform the opera.
"I wanted there to be elements of pop, of blues and soul, of experimental jazz and of Indian music."
Quebecite contains more humour than you'll find in most operas, but it does have moments of high drama.
"There are certainly elements from my parents' story in there," Jackson says. "There's a pivotal moment in the opera, and in my parents' lives, where my mother told her parents she would marry my father and -- as Collette describes the scene -- her mother threatened to kill herself with a knife."
The opera is just one of several large-scale Jackson projects. His latest CD, Suite for New York (Justin Time) is an ambitious composition for nine pieces. He recently joined the BMI Musical Theater Workshop, and is composing a musical.
"I'm getting into that world where words and music intersect, and am interested in the theatrical element, of telling a story with words and music."
The Vancouver concerts, which begin at 8 p.m., mark the second performance of Quebecite, which debuted Sept. 5 at the Guelph festival. There are only a couple of personnel changes from the band who performed at Guelph; Mark Dresser replaces John Geggie on bass, and cellist Finn Manniche will replace Peggy Lee for one of the two nights.
Tonight, at the Vancouver Public Library's Alice MacKay Room, Jackson, Clarke and cast members will participate in a panel discussion entitled Quebecite: Staging Diversity, moderated by CBC host Shelagh Rogers. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. and admission is free.
- Marke Andrews, Vancouver Sun